Warsaw: a perennial box of surprises?

I did expect some grimness – and there is, of course, plenty of it. Consider the area around the Palace of Culture and Science, and the huge empty space around the building itself.

I also expected interesting cemeteries, having read Rutu Modan’s The Property and also having seen many interesting photographs by Roman and Wanda taken on November 1st. The visit to Cmentarz Powązkowski (Powązki Cemetery) on my first day there, a Sunday, was great. Those Polish red lanterns by the tombs, next to elaborate and lovingly kept altars.

It was unfortunately impossible to visit the Jewish Cemetery – it was closed to the public during the Passover holiday.

What I did not expect was the dimension of the parks – they are enormous, with old trees and plenty of water (apparently diverted from the Vistula River in the 17th Century by some Italian architects – or Polish architects with Italian training – for the Royal Palaces), their playfulness, their utter “Romanticism” (for lack of a better word; although of course they predate the idea of Romanticism itself by more than a century). Among the most beautiful urban parks I have ever seen, anywhere. The Royal parks of Warsaw, south of the center, are marvelous public spaces.

What I also did not necessarily expect was the good quality of food. This is something new. For decades, food in Poland had a particularly bad reputation. Even in 2009, when I was in Poland (not in Warsaw), food was ok – there were some good things but nothing prepared me for this explosion of fresh ingredients, of interesting and clever preparations, for the way food is presented. What was more surprising to me was how good “normal daily food” seemed to be, at least in the area where I stayed (a rather well-to-do part of the city, yes). The way they prepared their daily lunches seemed naturally good, not pretentious at all.

An area I did expect – from having read plenty of material about the post-WWII reconstruction – was a well-redone Old City. It is there, indeed – surprisingly well-done. One may enter from a tram station through an automatic staircase. That in itself is a bit surprising and announcing the fact that the Old City is made in the 1950’s based on etchings and paintings from the 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th centuries – with the original building techniques and materials.

Another big surprise was the area of the old buildings of the University. There I could not really know whether they are old or reconstructed — very-well — but I was very positively surprised by those buildings, public spaces, auditoriums. I cannot really place why at some point they almost seemed too well-kept, too renovated for a public university. Certainly in much better shape than most public universities (in New York, in Paris, in Barcelona, in Bogotá, in Buenos Aires, in Jerusalem)… Is this something new in Warsaw? Or is it something specific to Poland, the way people seem to keep in excellent shape those buildings? I felt surprised… in a positive way, but there is something unexplained there (to me).

And then again, recent history. And the ghetto, the ghetto’s absence. Now residential buildings from the 1950s or 60s, wide avenues where the lively (and dense, and ragbag) ghetto used to be. Wide boulevards where there must have been cobblers, klezmer musicians, small shops of all kinds of bric-à-brac, a whole life that completely disappeared.

That was very painful, when in a smooth tramway (the smoothness and easiness of Warsaw’s public transit system was yet another very good thing) we glided through the wide boulevards – empty on Sunday – and Roman told me “here was the ghetto”. I asked, “what do you mean, here?”. He said, “here”. I felt pain to see the nothingness that has replaced it. I fell silent for a while. As the smooth tramway ride left the area I realized how suffocating it is to go through a nothingness where between 1939 and 1943 a brutal, utter disaster happened.

I asked Roman whether something like the Berlin “stumbling blocks” (Stolpersteine) – those little pieces of pavement where the names of people who lived there and were killed or deported to the camps are engraved, sticking out a bit to make people “stumble” and remember – had been done there, in the Warsaw ghetto. He said “no… but maybe it should be done”.

At the Cmentarz Powązkowski

Those amazing parks of Warsaw

Eating in Warsaw (café food, not fancy places)

Stairway to… the Old City

The University of Warsaw (older area)

Wide boulevards – not quite the ghetto area, but this is roughly how it looks now…


about a building

It is perhaps easy to hate Warsaw’s Palace of Culture and Science. Looming tall from almost anywhere in a city that until recently didn’t seem to have many high rises, the 237 meter tower seems to assert from afar a crushing presence, a strong remnant of the Cold War – a somewhat ambiguous presence: yes, very Russian, very Soviet Russian, very Lomonosov-like. Yet also very New York-like, although a very heavy set, a very weighed down Empire State (the difference is not that significant: the Warsaw building is more than half the height of the Empire State if measured to its mast, something interesting to remember – and more than 60% the official height of the Empire State). But it is also much wider, and unlike the New York building, set into the middle of an enormous plaza that seems to have been empty of other tall buildings until recently.


To open space for this, Wanda told me they tore down many blocks of what looked like a typical Central/Eastern European capital, of which only this remains.


So there you are, a huge parking lot or space for cars (or pedestrians or military parades or now those terrible Polish November 11 fascist demonstrations) – the photograph only shows a fragment of the empty space that used to be a European City Center and was torn down by Stalin as part of his gift to the city of Warsaw.

P4023316 The building has an interesting history. Erected in 1955, at the height of the early stages of the Cold War, it was an assertion of Stalinist power in an emblematic city. More interesting to me perhaps are the stories Roman and Wanda told me: how Roman used to go to the Math Department (or Math Institute) that was for some time in some high floor of the tower, how he used to go as a kid or young student to the Muzeum Techniki, on one of the side facades of the building, and see a lot of interesting exhibitions there (I didn’t ask more details)… P4023345
or how Wanda used to go swimming in a public pool on the sports side of the building as she needed credit for Physical Education during her university-level Art studies. Or how excellent jazz (Miles Davis, etc.) was played there in the enormous Sala Kongresowa – where for sure important Congresses of the Party were also held… or even how the only strip club – the only official one – was also in a restaurant and bar in the building, Restauracja Kongresowa – open only to high officials of the Party or associates open to the public; at least those who had the money to pay for it.

The sides of the building have many stern statues of workers, teachers, reading the Big Canon, some of them with generic “European” features, but some of them also with Asian or African features (also generic) – perhaps to symbolize the friendship of peoples. Of course, also athletes – modestly covered (this is not Ancient Greece, nor even Poland of the 17th Century where Renaissance style statues – but the “modest” cover is sometimes quite revealing), all of them (the teacher, the reader, the worker, the athlete) with very squarish bodies.

And slowly, while walking around the building and hearing the stories, I start to like it somehow. Not the looming towering figure, perhaps, but the idea of having a building half the height of the Empire State and perhaps much wider, all devoted to music, to mathematics, to science museums, to sports, for sure to many other things along those lines (yes, and also to Party reunions and official meetings and perhaps truly horrific people also).

These days, we only seem to see that massive construction in malls, commercial venues, corporate buildings, banks, Met Life things, hotels. Even sports venues seem to be done in a very different way (of course we have huge “arenas” – often named for some company – for professional sport spectacles). Devoting a whole palace of that size to something like “culture” (whatever its intended meaning) seems more remote today than ever – especially culture including mathematics, art, science and sports (doing sports as opposed to watching them). I could understand why Roman seemed to like the Palace of Culture and Science, or some aspects of it. I would also like a building where you can listen to Miles Davis, go to an advanced seminar in Mathematical Logic, see Art and Science Museum exhibitions and go swimming or perhaps doing some judo.

But I can also understand Wanda’s dislike with the wasted City Center. After the “regime change” (1989), the whole area seems to be on a parade of newer buildings that try to overshadow the Palace of Culture:


Right in front, a Liebeskind building (left in the photo), some banks and other corporations – everything very new – remotely reminiscent of some New York areas (Bryant Park, without the playfulness). Corporate Europe standing in front of Communist Europe as if defying and saying “see, you lost!” yet those new buildings feel somewhat insecure, somewhat contrived, somewhat insubstantial in front of the Pałac Kultury i Nauki.

P4023306 On the South Western side of the Pałac, from the 1980s, a Marriott. Yes, a Marriott. Apparently the first tower to start to defy the Pałac Kultury i Nauki‘s preeminence, this building made before the change in the economy is really puzzling – it now looks as some kind of prescient gesture to the times that would come to Poland (and the world) after the change: a building that would seem taken directly from Omaha, Nebraska (or Anytown, Anycountry really), stands across large empty space – filled with cars. And a Marriott hotel, with all its cheesiness and all its crassness. This building is difficult to understand. I don’t really know what this building may have meant as a space to Varsovians in the 1980s, during the Martial Law years, after Solidarność.

All in all, this collection of buildings, centered on the Pałac Kultury and showing older Central European buildings, then the Pałac itself at the center of things, then the Marriott (and an interesting Train Station of which I have no photographs), and then the Corporate New Poland buildings… and perhaps next some new things that are not yet built – all of that is a fascinating architectural complex, with slices and layers of European history there in front of your eyes.

Capilla de Kamppi / silencio


Hoy de mañana fui a la capilla de Kamppi. Nunca había ido, extrañamente. Kamppi es el centro centro de Helsinki. El arquitecto Juhani Pallasmaa lideró hace unos diez o quince años un proyecto grande de reforma de esa zona: la estación de buses quedó subterránea y por donde uno pasa hay mezcla de espacios comerciales, plazas públicas, vivienda (apartamentos que se ven muy bien). Es un lugar que conecta la zona de la Estación Central de trenes con la estación de buses y barrios del centro (y atrás, el puerto occidental).

Había visto muchas veces al pasar (a pie, en tranvía, en bicicleta) el módulo (como un barco o un huevo gigante) de la capilla pero no sabía qué era y nunca había entrado. Esta semana leí que es una capilla (sin denominación – para cualquier religión o no-religión) y que el punto principal es el silencio.


Esa combinación (silencio, arquitectura de madera, espacio de recogimiento) resulta irresistiblemente atractiva para mí y decidí pasar apenas pudiera. Hoy iba camino al museo Amos Andersen y decidí parar ahí. Fue una experiencia hermosa y fuerte.


Fuerte porque el silencio en nuestra sociedad repleta de ruido es una propuesta radical. Los arquitectos (estudio K2S, Mikko Summanen, Niko Sirola, Kimmo Sintula) incluyeron el silencio como parte fundamental del espacio. De alguna manera logran aislar la capilla, ubicada en una de las zonas de mayor tráfico y tránsito (de todos los modos que hay) en la ciudad, un punto por el que pasan miles y miles diariamente.

Los materiales son maderas locales (abeto, aliso, fresno). No sé con qué aislaron la capilla del ruido – leí en unas notas que usaron una placa de escayola – no tengo ni idea de qué puede ser eso.

Pensé mucho en nuestro apartamento de Bogotá, tan desprotegido del ruido (como casi todo en todas partes). Pensé en el estado de meditación del sauna en Finlandia (los materiales de construcción son casi los mismos aunque obviamente las dimensiones no y tampoco la forma curva).


Pensé en la irreverencia fuerte que en todo caso hay en hacer un espacio altamente no comercial, sin nada para la venta, en plena zona de tránsito. Lo único que ofrece el espacio es la posibilidad de meditación, de silencio, de búsqueda interior.

Hay una cruz casi invisible (Finlandia, al igual que los demás países nórdicos, es país luterano – aunque no es un lugar religioso y mucho menos fundamentalista, sí está ahí la presencia de esa forma de cristianismo). La cruz es delgada, de plata. La puede encontrar si busca bien en una de las fotos de arriba. Pero no más. Hay un lugar para poner velas (algo común a muchas religiones).


La única iluminación proviene de esa ranura en el techo. Es ampliamente suficiente (y seguramente necesaria para la insonorización). La vista global, con las bancas sencillas de madera, el altar, la madera y esa luz, da una idea del recogimiento (agregue el silencio para imaginar este espacio que podría estar al borde de un lago de Carelia si no estuviera en pleno centro de la capital).


El silencio es un bien impresionante, como el agua pura, como el aire puro. La música funciona como su contraparte, pero la música que sabe escuchar el silencio es la que ha ido quedando. La que sabe que no es más que una fluctuación de este. En nuestro mundo repleto de ruidos de horror (en todas partes – un poco peor en países como Colombia pero esencialmente igual de horrible en todas partes), el silencio es como un lujo increíble. No debería ser así – podría suceder como pasó con el aire viciado de humo de cigarrillo que la gente tomaba como algo normal hace veinte o treinta años, y que de alguna manera aprendimos como sociedad a reubicar para poder respirar. Si pasó con el cigarrillo, ¿por qué no puede pasar con el ruido?


Los cojines de la iglesia son esas piedras – en realidad cojines cómodos para sentarse si uno prefiere su suavidad a las bancas de madera – o simplemente para llevarlos a las bancas de madera. Parte del diseño es esa forma de piedras amontonadas, que evocan el kivas de los saunas.

espacio – aire – curvas

El espacio del Museo de Arquitectura Leopoldo Rother en la Universidad Nacional siempre me ha gustado. Fue la imprenta de la Universidad durante un par de décadas iniciales (de 1945 a …). Luego aparentemente estaba semi-abandonado pero mantenía un aura especial – de edificio viejo de la Universidad Nacional más pequeño que los enormes Ingeniería, Derecho, Arte, un poco más juguetón, más lleno de elegantes curvas y vistas sorprendentes. Es una pequeña joya, relativamente desconocida, del campus.

El evento Mapping Traces / Rastrear Indicios que estamos coorganizando entre Matemáticas, Arte y Filosofía en noviembre próximo tendrá lugar en el Leopoldo Rother. Es realmente un lugar inspirador para el tipo de conexiones, contaminaciones, inspiraciones que queremos que haya en el evento.

Ayer, en pleno día lluvioso bogotano, pasé un instante hacia la 1 de la tarde a mirar el espacio y tomar fotos. Va algo de lo que vi.

Friday, during the lecture

Bruce Nauman

Marja Sakkari on Sol LeWitt, Bruce Nauman, Roman Opalka . . . recording progression . . . deconstr . . . simple statements true or false depending on context


Also, a poetic, challenging, setting the bar very high for clarity, lecture by Jan Zwicky, explaining how Gestalt may frame simplicity in a more effective way for us – she navigates different worlds in ways that only a poet (who is also an independent and very original philosopher) could.

Boredom being discussed by Marja Sakkari – outside –  minimalism – Opalka – Heidegger – Sontag (and may I add, Cioran, in his eternal Sunday boredoms).

Later today: Malliaris, Gromov, our Math Panel: Ghys, Iemhoff, McDuff, Sargsyan, Senechal, Woodin and myself. And to crown it all, Arana and Sullivan.

A long day in front.


Korundi House of Culture – Finland
Architectural Project: Juhani Pallasmaa

Ha sido una semana de aprendizaje impresionante. Los ojos se van abriendo. Pero estoy agotado. Es jueves y parece viernes. Solo que sigue mañana… : ) Consigno al vuelo temas:

  • El teorema de Désargues (sobre geometrías planares) no se puede demostrar sin pasar por el espacio. Hilbert demostró este hecho usando ideas de Beltrami (sobre rectilinearización de geodésicas). Arana explica esto. Etienne Ghys observa que se deriva directamente de considerar un plano con una métrica riemanniana no constante.
  • Désargues implica Pappus. O al revés. No se sabe aún qué conjuntos finitos admiten geometrías proyectivas. (Baldwin debe saber mucho sobre el tema – Zilber de pronto también). Ghys ve geometrías proyectivas en juegos como Set. Es una maravilla ir hablando con él, y ver cómo pasa de temas sofisticadísimos a temas elementales.
  • Szeméredi aparece en dos trabajos mencionado esta semana, y es mucho más interesante de lo que creía yo. Por algo tanto los geómetras como Malliaris-Shelah le ponen atención. Sospecho que aparecerá algo sobre el tema por ahí.
  • En conversación tarde en la noche, Wolfram observa que han observado usando ideas estilo Szeméredi para el grafo de facebook que el crecimiento de clusters es lineal entre los 13 y los 22 años. Luego se detiene.
  • Kate Shepherd habla del rol de los juegos al hacer arte. Sospecho que no sabe que los juegos son super importantes en matemática también. Me emociona escucharla.
  • Las historiadoras del arte finlandesas Riikka Stewen y Hanna Johansson hicieron presentaciones bellísimas en el panel. Me pusieron a leer a Merleau-Ponty.
  • Juliet Floyd y Juhanni Pallasmaa me dejaron intrigado con la obra de Sandback. Qué lástima no haberla visto hace un mes en Bogotá.
  • María Clara señala la conexión que hace Pallasmaa con vida y muerte en la arquitectura, y nos pregunta a los matemáticos si eso existe en nuestra obra. Grigor contesta que tal vez no.
  • Curtis Franks en su lectura de Brentano, de muchos otros autores, da hondo en el clavo del rol de la simplicidad. Va directo a Gauß, como debe ser. Luego me aclara que Henkin llega a la Completitud vía la Incompletitud, como a Jouko le gusta presentar a Gödel.
  • Sarnak pasó de Gauß también (reciprocidad cuadrática) a trabajos recientes.
  • Mañana: el pánel matemático.

Composers as Gardeners

My topic is the shift from ‘architect’ to ‘gardener’, where ‘architect’ stands for ‘someone who carries a full picture of the work before it is made’, to ‘gardener’ standing for ‘someone who plants seeds and waits to see exactly what will come up’. I will argue that today’s composer are more frequently ‘gardeners’ than ‘architects’ and, further, that the ‘composer as architect’ metaphor was a transitory historical blip.

Composers as Gardeners

Wielrenners passeren het Atomium (Brussel)

A post by momus on Brussels’ Atomium has prompted my nostalgia for that city. The whole series of recent momus posts from/about Brussels have clicked on my memory in a weird way.

As a ten-year old child, I was first excited by the Atomium, and then quickly deemed it passé and boring – the sort of place you might stop while showing some city to visitors, with no excitement besides the sight of the building – a sight that quickly registered in my then young mind as 1950s (therefore boring, pretentious, naive).

Oddly enough, after many years I look back at the futuristic 1950s, 60s and 70s with awe, admiration and envy. Whatever happened in our stupid “post-modern”, eclectic, idiotic 1980s, that utterly destroyed the spirit of the future as it was lived in works like Atomium, Tati’s movies, Kubrick’s 2001? How could it all be abandoned, in the lackadaisical mood of the blase 1980s, as the future that wasn’t to be a future?

Sólo he ido un par de veces a la Biblioteca Virgilio Barco; sin embargo, tengo recuerdos muy buenos de una vez que hicimos examen final allá cuando la UN estaba cerrada por unos días, hace ya unos cinco años.

El fotógrafo arquitectónico Mike Butler hizo una serie de fotos de la Virgilio Barco (clic aquí). Algunas son impresionantes técnicamente – capturan algo del ritmo, del aire de esas obras de Salmona (pienso en Postgrados de Ciencias Humanas en la UN, un sitio que a veces busco para pensar y estar tranquilo). En la página de Butler hay motores en flash para ver las fotografías muy ampliadas (tomadas con extremo detalle). Aparentemente, las fotos estarán expuestas en páneles del parque de la 93 hasta el 2 de noviembre.

También hay un video (simpático – me encanta la toma con las montañas iluminadas al fondo, hacia el final) hecho por el mismo Mike Butler, sobre el trabajo de cinco noches fotografiando la biblioteca.